Gaelic in Galloway
Threave castle - built to control Galloway's Gaelic clans.
At the end of the eighteenth century there were 297 823 Gaelic speakers in Scotland. By the beginning of the twenty first century there were only 58 552. Concern over the decline of Gaelic persuaded the Scottish Parliament to pass the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act in 2005 and to establish Bord na Gaidhlig in 2006. Bord na Gaidhlig’s priority is to increase the number of Gaelic speakers across Scotland, not just in the language’s traditional heartlands in the Highlands and Islands. As part of this nation-wide remit, in November 2010 Bord na Gaidhlig contributed funding of £45 000 to Dumfries and Galloway’s Community Learning and Development Service to support adult Gaelic learning in the region. Anndra Wilson was subsequently appointed as Gaelic Development Worker for Dumfries and Galloway.
For anyone with an interest in the history of and culture of Dumfries and Galloway, this is fascinating development. At the beginning of the twelfth century, Gaelic was spoken across almost the whole of Scotland. However, during the reign of King David I (1124-1153), the shift from Gaelic to Scots as the main language of Scotland began. While his predecessors had been based in Alba -Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde boundary- David’s power-base was in south-east Scotland. South-east Scotland had been part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria and the Old English speech of this region evolved into the language we now call Scots. As David and his successors expanded this ‘new’ kingdom of the Scots north and west, so the gradual decline of Gaelic began.
By the end of the fourteenth century most of the population of southern Scotland were speaking Scots, with Gaelic surviving only in Galloway, south Ayrshire and Nithsdale. In these areas, Gaelic was to persist for another 200 years. This survival of Gaelic is reflected in the thousands of Gaelic place names still found in the south-west.
Why did Gaelic survive in south-west Scotland ? The answer lies in the region’s distinctive history. When King David I granted Annandale to Robert de Brus in 1124, large parts of south-west Scotland had yet to become part of David’s kingdom. Nithsdale, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Wigtownshire and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright lay within a vaguely defined region called Galloway. This region took its name from the Gall-Ghàidheil, the ‘foreign Gaels’. The Gall-Ghàidheil spoke Gaelic, but their culture had been strongly influenced by the Vikings or the ‘Gall’ as the Irish called them. In 1124, what is now called Galloway was only a small part of this larger Galloway and was ruled as an independent kingdom by Fergus ‘of Galloway‘. By 1160, Fergus’ rule was over and his kingdom, along with the rest of Galloway had been absorbed into the kingdom of Scotland- at least in theory. In practice, the situation was more complex.
Although the king of Scots was their feudal superior, Fergus’ descendants continued to rule Galloway as if it was an independent kingdom. Even after they settled ‘Norman’ (mainly Cumbrian) knights in Galloway, the real power of Galloway’s lords flowed from the loyalty of the region’s Gaelic kindreds or clans. The last lord of Galloway to rely on this support was Edward Balliol. Edward’s father was King John Balliol whose grandfather was Alan of Galloway (died 1234), the great-grandson of Fergus of Galloway. Between 1332 and 1356, Edward Balliol claimed the Scottish throne, but for most of his reign Balliol had to depend on Edward III of England for support. Balliol could rely on Scottish support in Galloway, but such support drew on the traditional loyalty of Galloway’s Gaelic clans to Balliol as their ‘special lord’ rather his claim to be king of Scots.
In 1356, Edward Balliol had lost even this support and his last toe-holds on Scottish soil - Buittle Castle and Hestan Island- and had to renounce his claim to the Scottish throne. This still left English troops in control of many castles across the south of Scotland. King David II gave Archibald the Grim the task of recovering these castles. Archibald was the illegitimate son of James Douglas, Robert Bruce’s most loyal supporter. In 1369, David II granted Archibald control of the lands ‘between the Nith and Cree’ to which Archibald soon added Wigtownshire, making him Lord of Galloway.
To control Galloway, Archibald had Threave Castle built and it was from Threave that the Douglas Lordship of Galloway was administered for the next eighty years. For nearly 500 years, Gaelic had been the dominant language in Galloway but now the region was ruled by Scots speakers and the social status of Gaelic began to decline. After the fall of the Douglases in 1455, King James II took direct control of Galloway, denying any chance of a Gaelic revival.
From the poetry of Walter Kennedy who lived in south Ayrshire, we know that Gaelic was still spoken in the Carrick district at the beginning of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, entries in the Wigtown Burgh Court Book shows that Scots was already established in the Machars by 1512. This suggests that Scots became the language of the more populous and prosperous lowland parishes of Galloway while Gaelic survived in the more isolated and less populous upland parishes, gradually fading away during the sixteenth century. The final disappearance of Gaelic in Galloway is likely to have been hastened by the Scottish Reformation. The Reformation became deeply rooted in Galloway and was propagated by Scots speaking ministers preaching from English translations of the Bible. By the seventeenth century, when the Covenanters and Conventiclers found refuge in the upland parishes, Scots was the language they spoke and English the language of their defiant declarations. If Gaelic had survived in Galloway, then Andrew Sympson would have recorded this fact in his Large Description of Galloway which he composed in 1682. Sympson notes distinctive features of the local Scots dialect, but makes no mention of the survival or even recent disappearance of Gaelic.
And yet, despite the disappearance of the language, Galloway remains a region named, created and shaped by Gaelic speakers. It was the Gall-Ghàidheil who gave the region its name and it was the Gaelic speaking people of Galloway who provided Fergus and his descendants down to Edward Balliol with their military power. Without their continued loyalty, only historians would recognise ‘Galloway’ as the name of a region.
Tracing the history of Gaelic Galloway is difficult due to the lack of written sources. There are a very few charters from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but these were written for Anglo-Norman land owners. Occasionally these charters reveal the existence of the Gaelic community, but only as witnesses, not as land-owners. The land-holdings of Galloway’s Gaelic ’aristocracy’ were derived from pre-feudal traditional rights and networks of kinship rather than feudal charters. By the time more detailed records of land ownership begin in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Gaelic was extinct. Only in a few places is it possible to reconstruct the likely pattern of Gaelic land ownership. One example comes from the north of Kirkcowan parish.
In 1684, a list of all the inhabitants of Kirkcowan over the age of 12 was drawn up by the parish minister. In the Barony of Sleudinle, which contains the Gaelic place name element sliabh, 54 people were listed living in 14 farms - Barnbrake, Craigary, Alderikallbarichan, Highdirry, Laighdirry, Craigmuddy, Killyallirk, Dirvannany, Munondowy, Dirvaghly, Dirmark, Alderickinair, Netheralderick and Inshanks. Although garbled by later Scots speakers, these are farms which were given their names by Gaelic speakers. The occupants of the farms would still have been Gaelic speakers in 1455 when, as the £10 land of Slewyndonal, the barony was amongst the lordship of Galloway lands forfeited to the Scottish Crown. In 1457 the lands were being used as pasture for King James II’s horses. Around 1590, several of the farms in the barony were surveyed by Timothy Pont and are shown on Joan Blaeu’s map of Galloway published as part of his Atlas of Scotland in 1654. The map can be viewed on the National Library of Scotland’s website.
Similar groupings of farms with Gaelic names, recorded in 1455 amongst the Douglas lands and which survived as small estates into the eighteenth century; can be found in Penninghame, Minnigaff, Kells and Buittle parishes. It is possible that these farms were grouped into small estates by the Douglases, but it is more likely that they simply took over the existing pattern of land-holdings. In 1324, King Robert I granted James Douglas most of the farms in Buittle parish apart from the lands of Patrick McGilbothyn. From analysis of James Douglas’ charter, Patrick McGilbothyn’s lands were located around Orchardton in Buittle. In 1456, King James II granted the £6 land of Arsbutil to John Cairns who had assisted James during the siege of Threave Castle in the summer of 1455. It was Cairns who built the distinctive round tower house at Orchardton and in later records the lands of Orchardton are identified as those formerly called Arsbutil.
What these examples suggest is that through its embodiment in patterns of land ownership, Galloway’s Gaelic culture continued to influence the region’s distinctive history even after Gaelic ceased to be spoken. By the sixteenth century there were hundreds of owner-occupiers of small estates in Galloway. These ’bonnet-lairds’ were supporters of the Scottish Reformation and their descendants were supporters of the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. In 1641, the Stewartry War-Committee of the Covenant, made up of bonnet-lairds, assisted at the siege of Threave Castle which was held for Charles I. After the castle fell to the Army of the Covenant, William McLellan took stonework from Threave to build his tower house at Barscobe in Balmaclellan. In 1666, William’s son Robert was a leader of the armed uprising against Charles II which began at Dalry and ended in defeat at Rullion Green near Edinburgh. The McLellans were one of Galloway’s medieval Gaelic clans.
The last echo of Galloway’s Gaelic dualchas (heritage) was the uprising of the Galloway Levellers in 1724. This uprising was in response to the clearance of people from the land to make way for cattle farms and involved the demolition of the dry-stane dykes built to hold the cattle. Since the Levellers had armed themselves, troops were brought in to restore order. The Levellers uprising ended at Duchrae in Balmaghie parish in October 1724, when 200 were captured by the troops. Despite this defeat, the Levellers’ actions halted the process of clearance in Galloway. But then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the physical heritage of Galloway’s Gaelic past was finally swept away. Merchants and traders, who had made their fortunes through trade with India and the Americas, created new estates and began to improve them. Inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment, the result was the neatly ordered landscape of enclosed fields, farms, planned villages and towns that has persisted to the present.
When these later layers are stripped away, an older landscape is revealed in the Gaelic names of places and of farms. This is the landscape of the kingdom and lordship of Galloway. History has preserved the names and the deeds of the rulers of Galloway in charters and annals, but the Gaelic people they ruled left no written records of their lives. Yet, although silent within history, their voices can still be heard everyday in the Gaelic names they gave to the places they lived in and knew. As more people begin to learn Gaelic in Dumfries and Galloway, their knowledge of the language will add a depth of understanding to perceptions of the region’s natural and cultural heritage. At the same time, as the struggle between the Bruces and Balliols shows, Galloway’s Gaelic heritage has also played a significant part in the shaping of Scotland as a nation.